Mistaken identity, farce, forests and weddings – so far, so Shakespearean. But director Jamie Lloyd’s production of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 She Stoops to Conquer is much less predictable than all that, replete as it is with singing servants, tongue-tied males and jokes about snobbish Londoners (which made the crowd at the National chortle all the louder, bien sur). This play is never going to be praised for its understated performances (after all, “this is overacting, young gentleman!” as Mr Hardcastle exclaims deep in the final act), but as a boisterous and ultimately delightful romp it’ll be hard to top it this month.
The play centres around Marlow, a foolish and foppish young gentleman who has been sent by his father to woo the beautiful and wealthy Kate Hardcastle (played by Katherine Kelly, of recent Coronation Street fame). He is, however, cripplingly nervous around “well-born” women, and it is not until he is led to believe that Kate’s father, Mr. Hardcastle’s, house is an inn and that Kate herself is a barmaid that he is freed from his social fears and thus able to court Kate successfully. In typical comedic fashion this mistake leads to a whole array of hilarious encounters, but the real success of the play lies in its ability to touch on issues of class and snobbery, and then to dismiss them in order that the romantic unions triumph and happiness is restored.
The cast, on the whole, is a delight. Harry Hadden-Paton excels as the charmingly useless Marlow, and Sophie Thompson, who plays the over-the-top Mrs Hardcastle, earns one heck of a lot of laughs with her mock-posh London accent. However, I particularly enjoyed the performances of the more minor characters – the Hardcastles’ son and typical rustic “booby” Tony Lumpkin (played by David Fynn) and John Heffernan, who plays Marlow’s equally mischievous mate, Hastings. Most critics’ eyes are inevitably on Kate, and Katherine Kelly does little to disappoint here. My only reservation would be that on occasion she seems to try just a little too hard to force the laughs. Kate Hardcastle is a part that requires a delicate balance of feeling and foppery; Kelly’s baser instincts sometimes veer toward the superficial.
Still, She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy, and it is a near-perfect one at that. The set design is particularly impressive – while in one act we are privy to the Hardcastles’ lovely home with fire and all, in the next we are submerged equally completely into a forest of trees, smoke and moonlight. The play itself has also been brought completely up to date (there are knowing winks from Mrs Hardcastle and jokes with the audience from Hastings), which is no mean feat for the director.
Oliver Goldsmith himself wrote once that: “I am one of the sauntering tribe of mortals who spend the greatest part of their time in taverns, coffee-houses, and other places of public resort. I have thereby an opportunity of observing an infinite variety of characters, which, to a person of a contemplative turn, is a much higher entertainment than a view of all the curiosities of art or nature…”. In saying this, he struck gold. The tavern has always been one of the best places to observe variety, and it would seem that the Hardcastles’ (tavern? Home? Who knows…) is no exception. See this play if you possibly can. It really is a delight.
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